Despite 2019’s “The Vigil” making a modest splash amongst genre fans, the annals of Jewish horror movies remain pretty thin. Adding a page to those ranks is The Offering,” which actually has considerable overlap with that recent predecessor — it, too, is about a shape-shifting demon who preys on the living after the death of its latest host, whose corpse is on the premises awaiting burial.
English helmer Oliver Park’s debut feature is the slicker, somewhat showier affair of the two. But while diverting enough, it lacks that predecessor’s atmospheric dread and psychological plausibility, resulting in a jump-scare-riddled contraption ultimately more cheesy than frightening. Neon division Decal is opening the Bulgaria-shot U.S. production in 20+ U.S.markets on Jan. 13, simultaneous with its release on digital platforms.
Introductory onscreen text informs us of “one terrifying female demon” present in “myths of the Near East and Europe” at least as far back as the 1st century A.D., known under many names but consistent as a “taker of children.” We then see an elderly man, Yosille (Anton Trendafilov), in a disordered apartment performing a ritual to keep some malevolent force at bay — unsuccessfully, it turns out.
That unfortunate gent is already on a slab in the basement mortuary facilities of the Feinberg Funeral Home when prodigal son Art (Nick Blood) arrives with heavily pregnant wife Claire (Emily Wiseman). He’s returning here to Brooklyn after a period of estrangement, apparently caused in part because his British spouse is a “shiksa” — yet widowed father Saul (Allan Corduner), who still runs the family business, seems overjoyed to welcome them both. Less delighted is Saul’s longtime assistant Heimish (Paul Kaye), who suspects Art has ulterior motives for this reunion.
Somewhat improbably, the two older men soon stick long-absent Art with embalming their dead neighbor, a process that must begin with removing the lethal knife still lodged in his sternum. Art is intrigued by an amulet around the corpse’s neck, which he rather callously removes — unaware he’s thus liberated the evil trapped in the lifeless body, though immediate poltergeist-like disturbances (banging doors, flickering lights, and so on) announce that fact. It doesn’t take long for Claire to begin experiencing alarming visions, or for Art to start carving occult symbols hither and yon while in some kind of trance.
Household unease is ramped up further by the fear that the disappearance of a local girl (Sofia Weldon) may be connected to the “curse” our protagonists realize they’ve become ensnared in. There’s also irate Heimish’s discovery that real estate broker Art is, in fact, broke, and really only came here to beg his father sign over the family home/business as loan collateral. Such worldly concerns are forgotten, however, once the second half of Hank Hoffman’s screenplay turns into a hectic pileup of supernatural perils too heavy on rote “boo!” scares, stunt work and creature FX.
Indeed, the midpoint hasn’t quite arrived when we start seeing way too much of the demon in question, a colossus whose depiction (it’s got a mutant goat head) would have benefitted from being glimpsed as briefly as possible, in obscuring shadows. Other wonders also hit the nail on the head in over-literal fashion, hurling actors against walls and such, particularly during a protracted climax that’s all too reminiscent of myriad similar scenes staged ever since “The Exorcist” got released 50 years ago.
Despite the relative novelty of Orthodox Jewish rather than Catholic religious underpinnings, there’s too little originality to the content here, and not enough creepiness to unsettle viewers anyway. Park seems more inclined towards such familiar goosing tactics as phantom ghouls jumping from closets than building the kind of unsettling tension that might hold those jolts in reserve for greater impact.
That gimmicky spookhouse air is not the fault of Philip Murphy’s production design, or Lorenzo Senatore’s widescreen lensing, both of which make the most of an impressively somber, 19th-century-looking interior. Likewise, the actors do decent work, excepting one juvenile performer whose impersonation of leering evil falls well short. But their earnest efforts get betrayed by the film’s short-attention-spanned, obvious overall approach, which sacrifices credibility for increasingly cluttered, ineffectual shocks. (Claire alone is subjected to so many nasty surprises, it begins to defy belief that she hasn’t already miscarried.)
“The Offering” does move along at a brisk clip, so it’s at no risk of being boring even as its potential to terrify dissipates. But it ends up illustrating the virtue of “less is more,” particularly when attempting a serious occult horror story. It’s just too much — although that overkill is entertaining enough in its way, not least when the final crew scroll reveals a credit for “Special Effects Teeth.”